Opus Colorado

The Boulder Chamber Orchestra: Rare gems

Saturday evening, October 4th, I attended the performance of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra at the Broomfield Auditorium. Their season has been titled Mystique, and Saturday’s performance featured the pianist, Victoria Aja, performing two rarely heard works: Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, and the Symphonic Variations by Belgian composer César Franck. There were two other works on the concert that night, and, as a matter of fact, they are rarely done as well: Ritual Fire Dance, by Manuel de Falla and the delightful Symphony in C by Georges Bizet.

Maestro Bahman Saless opened the program with the Ritual Fire Dance, which is one Falla’s most popular works. This is a short section from an original ballet, El Amor Brujo, which had been commissioned in 1915 by a dancer named Pastora Imperio. The scene in the ballet where Ritual Fire Dance occurs is a dance done by the character Candela, who is being haunted by the ghost of her dead husband. Candela is encouraged by Gypsies to dance the ritual fire dance in order to get rid of the ghost. As they all dance faster and faster, the ghost appears, is drawn into the flames, and then vanishes forever. This piece became so popular that Manuel de Falla arranged it for piano, and it rapidly became used by several pianists as an encore as well as a programmed work.

The Boulder Chamber Orchestra was absolutely superb in capturing the rhythms, melodic mannerisms, and the complete atmosphere of Manuel de Falla’s popular composition. Linda Wilkin is the pianist with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, and she was excellent. There were some marvelous flute work and oboe work done by Cobus du Toit, flute, and Max Soto, oboe. The BCO seemed very excited with the performance of this piece, and it was so successful because of this excitement that I wondered why more orchestras do not perform this. It could be that for a while it was extremely popular, and that its popularity rose to the level of a cliché during the 1930s. But I was certainly glad to hear it again. I can remember hearing Arthur Rubenstein perform this years ago, and it always brought the audience to its feet.

The Spanish pianist, Victoria Aja, then joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra to perform Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Manuel de Falla, who wrote this work, lived in Paris for a while where he befriended Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, and Maurice Ravel. All three of these composers were very appreciative of the values they found in Spanish music, and all three of those composers responded with great enthusiasm to Falla’s music. In addition the Spanish composer, Issac Albéniz, was living in Paris as well, and there was much interchange among all of these composers. For example, Falla, through informal tutelage, learned much about Impressionism, and the French composers learned much about the Spanish model harmonies.

I will briefly quote from Victoria Aja’s bio statement:

“The Spanish Victoria Aja began her musical studies in Bilbao and continued at the Conservatory of Music in Madrid with Manuel Carra (a former student of Manuel de Falla). She then moved to London to perfect her performance. At 18, she won the Luis Coleman contest in Spain followed by the Frank Marshall Academy Competition in Barcelona and obtained the “Rosa Sabater” diploma of the Musica in Compostela. She was invited to play and hold conferences on numerous occasions by the Instituto Cervantes. She recorded an album for EMI devoted to Albéniz, Falla, Turina, Donostia and the pieces by the composer Jesus Guridi for the Naxos label, a record ranking among the American magazine Fanfare’s top records.”

Victoria Aja’s performance of this piece was exhilarating. She has great strength when she plays, and, as one would expect, she is totally at home with this composer. This is not an easy piece to play. The rhythms are extremely demanding, and there are many glissandos (on the piano, a rapid scale effect obtained by sliding the thumb, or thumb and one finger, over the keys) which must end precisely with the orchestra. As a matter of fact, she made use of a fabric pad when she performed some of the glissandos, presumably to protect her hands from being abraded as she slid the backs of her fingers across the keys. Though I have never seen this done before, in this particular composition it might be advisable because there are so many glissandos. There is no question that the audience was in love with this piece. The response to her performance was enthusiastic indeed.

Following the intermission, Victoria Aja performed César Franck’s Symphonic Variations. This is not necessarily a straightforward or simple set of variations: it is a three movement concerto form without interruption, which sometimes seems to use the word “variations” as a catchword. The number of variations, as the program notes point out is still a matter of debate, but many agreed that there are six large variations: 1) a tête-à-tête between piano and orchestra; 2) the theme stated by the cello; 3) a statement of the theme with the piano with strings and woodwinds; 4) and elaboration by the piano with harmonic changes; 5) an expansion of the former; 6) stronger variations in the piano with cello accompaniment.

César Franck (1822-1890) was born in Belgium, however, he spent most of his life in Paris. He was not a terribly prolific composer, but what he wrote is excellent music indeed. He was primarily an organist and composer, but he was also an excellent pianist. He taught at the Paris Conservatory, and his young student, Claude Debussy, studied improvisation with him, though they did not often see eye to eye. César Franck wrote this marvelous piece at the age of 63.

I am extremely familiar with this work, and I found Victoria Aja’s performance to be excellent, but at the same time a little puzzling. For example, I found her tempo to be a little bit on the slow side, and in addition, it seemed that in the lush center section where there is a two-handed arpeggio figuration, she could have been a little bit more legato in her approach. It would be interesting to know what edition of this work she was using, and that might go a long way to explaining her approach. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful performance of a work that is seldom heard. There is no question that she exposed César Franck for the creative master that he was. It is my hope that she performs this piece quite often, as the public needs to know this beautiful work.

The Boulder Chamber Orchestra closed their concert with an absolutely masterful performance of Georges Bizet’s Symphony in C Major. The Symphony was written when Bizet (1838-1875) was only 17 years old, presumably as an assignment while he was studying at the Paris Conservatory. Curiously, the work was not discovered until 1933, and it was not performed, as the program notes point out, until 1935.

Maestro Saless and the BCO gave an absolutely delightful performance of this piece. It demonstrates the influence that Mozart had on Bizet, with its transparency and refined textures. Perhaps more than any other work performed on Saturday’s program, the orchestra played this with a marvelous enthusiasm and accuracy of phrasing which accentuated Mozart’s influence. There was no denying that the entire woodwind section and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra is absolutely superb. Their performance was so exact that it could not be missed. The enthusiasm with which certain members played was easily noticeable as well. Gynögyvér Petheö and Veronica Pigeon seemed really to be enjoying this symphony, and their enthusiasm was truly hard to miss. Joseph Howe, Principal Cello; Aniel Cabán, Principal Viola, also reflected great enthusiasm. There is a fugue in the second movement of the Symphony, and that can sometimes keep the performers on their toes with dynamics and accents that keep each entrance similar. It was flawless. The entire orchestra made this work light and airy, and it made me think that Georges Bizet must have felt somewhat isolated in Paris because instrumental music was not incredibly popular in the city when he wrote this piece.

The Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Bahman Saless maintains their effortless reputation for excellent and exciting performances. And this season, the music they have programmed is truly exceptional and rarely heard: Stravinsky’s Octet for Winds; Vivaldi’s Gloria; Brahms Haydn Variations; Nielsen’s Flute Concerto; and in May, Chopin’s Concerto nr. 2 in f minor. These are all programs that you cannot miss.

The Boulder Chamber Orchestra with Soto and Korevaar: Truly exceptional in every way

Saturday evening, December 21, I attended a concert given by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Bahman Saless, given at the Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver. The title of this particular program was A Gift of Music, and, I must say, that certainly turned out to be the case. There were two remarkable soloists. David Korevaar performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 414, and the BCO’s own Max Soto performed a work by Boulder composer Bill Douglas, entitled Songs and Dances for Oboe and Strings. Also on the program was George Frideric Handel’s well-known Water Music Suite Nr. 1 in F Major. This program was indeed a gift because there were two well-known works on the program, the Handel and the Mozart, but also, because there was a brand-new piece that I have never heard before, and that was the work by Bill Douglas.

Maestro Saless opened the program with the Handel. Handel had left Germany for England because he did not particularly like the patronage system that was in Germany, where the type of music he wrote was dictated to him by the royalty. In England he hoped to be able to compose more freely. The three Water Music suites, as the program notes pointed out, came about because King George I was trying to improve his image before the English people. He took some barge trips on the Thames from London to Chelsea, which, in today’s vernacular, we would call a ‘photo op,’ in order to prove to the people that he could mingle.

The Suite Nr. 1 is well-known for its tricky French horn writing, and this certainly gives the piece its immediate identity. The first movement of the six part suite opens with trills in the violins, and then in the horns. I was impressed immediately by the fact that the trills in the violins were together (each note!) as well as in the horns. As a matter of fact, Devon Park and Megan Rubin, French horn, were outstanding all the way through this work by Handel. I also hasten to point out that the violins have taken on a new life this season because of all the new faces. Annamaria Karacson, Concertmaster, did not play Saturday evening, because she was serving as concertmaster in the Colorado Ballet’s The Nutcracker. Principal Second violinist, Gyongyver Petheo, took her place, and another violinist who I believe was Michaela Borth, moved up one chair. The reason that I mention all of this is that this season, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra has demonstrated a great deal of depth with many new faces. I had the opportunity Saturday evening to sit very close to the violins, and because of that, I could hear the violinists individually. Some of the ornaments in the Handel are difficult, but, as one might expect, they were accomplished with great ease. In the second movement, which Handel has marked Adagio e staccato, there was some very nice work done by the oboes, Max Soto and Kim Brody, and bassoonist, Kent Hurd. The entire orchestra reflected a new precision and care Saturday evening. It is as if the new members of this orchestra have infected the entire group with a new sense of meticulousness. The Handel was full of spirit and drive, and it truly did seem as if they were in total agreement with Maestro Saless every step of the way.

Following the Handel, and immediately before the Douglas work, Maestro Saless inserted a seasonal carol entitled Chanukah, Chanukah. This was the first time I had heard this Carol and it was very definitely a slow-fast-slow dance form. I am sure that it was using the Ahava Rabbah scale which is used throughout Israel, Turkey, and Lebanon, at least. It is similar to a modified Phrygian mode. But this was a marvelous piece of music, and it was very definitely emotional in its celebratory spirit.

Next on the program Maestro Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra principal oboist, Max Soto, performed a work by Boulder composer Bill Douglas entitled, Songs and Dances for Oboe and Strings. I will quote from Douglas’ website:

“I was born in London, Ontario, Canada on November 7, 1944. My father played trombone and sang in a big band, and my mother played organ in church. My earliest memory is of myself playing in a one-man band with toy instruments when I was three. I began piano lessons at four and I taught myself ukulele and guitar when I was about eight or nine….

“From 1962-66, I attended the University of Toronto and obtained a BA in music education. During this time, I became very interested in 20th century classical music, and started composing pieces influenced by Anton Webern, Elliott Carter, and Igor Stravinsky, as well as such contemporary jazz artists as Paul Bley and Gary Peacock. I played fourth bassoon in the Toronto Symphony, and I often played jazz piano gigs on weekends.

“I was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in 1966, and attended Yale University from 1966-69. There I met clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, and we have been touring and recording ever since. In 1967, I played three concerti with the Toronto Symphony. I received a Master of Music degree majoring in bassoon in 1968, and a Master of Musical Arts degree in composition in 1969. At this time, I was writing very avant-garde atonal music. After Yale, I received a Canada Council award to study composition in London, England, for a year.

“In 1977, I moved to Boulder, Colorado, to teach at the Naropa Institute. I continue to teach there and to tour with Richard Stoltzman and my own groups. With Richard, I also often play with bassist Eddie Gomez. Some of my bassoon students from Cal Arts moved to Boulder with me, and we formed the Boulder Bassoon Band which played together for twenty years.”

This was the first time I have heard this composition. It is a very impressive piece, which has the overall quality of a pastorale, even though these movements are all dance movements. The movements are listed as, I. Bebop Jig; II. Folksong; III. Afro-Cuban Baroque; IV. Lament; and V. Celtic Waltz.

This is truly a beautiful piece of music, and it seemed to me that it was very well suited to Soto’s marvelous ability on the oboe. The Bebop Jig is full of difficult rhythms, and in spite of its lively character, has a certain plaintiveness about it. The program notes explained that in Part II of the suite, Folksong, that Douglas was inspired by the folk music of the British Isles. Indeed, this was a beautifully lyric work which displayed the newfound richness that the violin section has. It also gave Max Soto the opportunity to show that he could match that ambience with his oboe. But, for me, the most exciting portion of this work (and it is difficult to make this choice because the entire work is so excellent, as was Soto’s playing) was Part III entitled, Afro-Cuban Baroque. This was a vigorous tango that was so skillfully written that I could not help but compare it to the work done by Arturo Márquez or Luis Jorge González. It was as elegant as it was spirited, and I must say that the Boulder Chamber Orchestra seemed to have the same affinity for a tango that the Costa Rican native, Max Soto, displays without effort. If you can imagine a tango being lyrical and carefree, that is the character that Soto gave this movement. Yes, it was fast at times but Soto and the orchestra seemed to be totally relaxed. I could have listened to Part III all night long. Part IV of this suite of dances was named Lament, and Part V, Celtic Waltz. Bill Douglas and Max Soto seem to have created a piece of music that has a narrative. That almost seems a shallow way to describe this work, but the narrative is so skillfully done that it could be applied to anything the listener wishes.

When Songs and Dances for Oboe and Strings came to an end I was genuinely disappointed. I would love to hear this piece again and again.

In the closing weeks of 1782, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began work on several compositions: piano concertos K. 413, K. 414 (most likely completed by December 28, 1782), and K. 415. The G major string quartet was completed December 31, 1782. Also, we know that he had begun work on the C minor Mass at this period of time because it was mentioned in a letter to his father on January 4, 1783. This is, quite obviously, a truly Herculean effort on Mozart’s part. In many ways, it was spurred by his satisfaction of leaving Salzburg, where he had been very unhappy, for Vienna. He remained in Vienna until 1786, when the Viennese failure of The Marriage of Figaro received fewer than ten performances. This was due to the musical politics of the Italian clique in Vienna.

The A Major Piano Concerto was performed Saturday evening by David Korevaar, well-known faculty member at CU-Boulder. Korevaar has amazing concentration which keeps him very relaxed, and this was even more noticeable Saturday evening because the front row seats at the Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church seemed to be immediately at the end of the keyboard. But I assure you that did not phase David Korevaar one bit. The minute the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and Maestro Saless began to perform, Korevaar was deep in concentration. His playing was, as usual, quite remarkable. This concerto has six major subjects in the first movement alone, and Korevaar carefully delineated each one in the most delightful way imaginable, through impeccable dynamic phrasing and nuance, which did not exceed the style of the Classical Period. It seemed that his ease at the keyboard inspired the orchestra to follow his every move with an effortlessness which was almost serene: Maestro Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra easily demonstrated that they were just as musically reliable as David Korevaar. It was very clear throughout this entire concerto that everyone on stage was thoroughly enjoying each other’s company, and I assure you that for the solo performer that can be not only a very warm feeling, but a very great compliment.

The slow movement in K. 414 is a Sonata allegro form, with its main subject taken from an overture composed by Johann Christian Bach, who was Mozart’s childhood friend and teacher. As the program notes state, J.C. Bach died on New Year’s Day in 1782. This movement is so lyrical that its solemnity can almost be overlooked, and Korevaar gave it great warmth which was not at all destroyed by his meticulous shaping of each phrase. There has never been anything mechanical about the way Korevaar plays.

The third movement is a very affable and congenial movement presented in a way that only Mozart can accomplish, in spite of the complexities of its counterpoint. As my memory serves me, the last movement is written in a 2/4 meter, and is in a rondo form. It is, technically, the most difficult of the three movements, but it genuinely seemed as though Korevaar was saying to the audience, “Yes, it is difficult, but it is also an incredible joy to play, and that makes it very easy.” Again, the interchange between Korevaar and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra was something to behold: it was a remarkable and artistic collaboration.

I truly believe that I have never heard the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and Maestro Bahman Saless perform so well. On the other hand, when the orchestra has two fine soloists such as Max Soto and David Korevaar, their task becomes much more delightful. It was also a great pleasure at Saturday evening’s performance to see so many young people in the audience, even though the weather caused the audience to be somewhat sparse. Because of the intimate surroundings, these young people were able to hear a truly fine performance.

Maestra Katsarelis and the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra: Electrifying!

It is always quite an experience, upon leaving a concert that you know will be good, to be totally surprised at just how excellent it was. Such was the case Friday evening as I left St. Paul’s Lutheran Church here in Denver, upon hearing the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Maestra Cynthia Katsarelis. The performance Friday evening, November 22, was absolutely electric: it was a performance in which all the musicians (and they are all excellent) were equally excited by the music that they were playing. They seemed eager to show how their hard work allowed them to perform absolutely incredible music in an incredible way.

Maestra Katsarelis and the Pro Musica opened the program with Michael Daugherty’s Strut for String Orchestra. This work was inspired by the African-American actor Paul Roberson, who was also a singer and a civil rights activist, and a very accomplished stage actor. I will quote from the program notes:

“Robeson was widely admired for his acting, on stage as Shakespeare’s Othello, in films such as The Emperor Jones (1932) and Showboat (1936), and in concert for his singing of Afro-American spirituals and folksongs. Paul Robeson was also an advocate for American racial equality and justice. His civil rights activities were viewed as ‘subversive’ by J. Edgar Hoover, director of the F.B.I. Robeson’s American passport was revoked by the U.S. Government in 1950, forcing his political, film and concert career to a virtual stand-still.”

Keep in mind that Michael Daugherty, born in 1954 (and not 1915 as the program notes stated), has been strongly influenced all his life by American pop culture. His compositions most definitely reflect that influence, and as far as Paul Robeson is concerned, Daugherty stated that he could imagine “Robeson ‘strutting’ down 125th Street in Harlem.” While I would not disagree at all with the composer’s train of thought as he wrote this piece, to me, it seemed more like a formal tribute. It had very complicated dotted rhythms and very thick harmonic textures. It was a very exciting piece to be sure, and it clearly demonstrated how excellent the strings are in this chamber orchestra. The rhythms were very sharp indeed, and the attacks were perfect. The orchestra’s enthusiasm for the piece wanted a certain angularity in its forward motion. Keep in mind this is the first time I have heard this piece, but it seemed to me that rather than melodic counterpoint being used, there was rhythmic counterpoint, that occurred three times in this relatively short composition. This certainly was not an easy piece, but it was a delightful one, and it is my hope that they perform it again. Maestra Katsarelis infused this with a very appealing energy and drive.

Following the Daugherty, the Pro Musica and guest artist, Nicolò Spera, performed the well-known Concierto de Aranjuez, by the blind composer Joaquin Rodrigo (1901–1999). As Spera pointed out in the excellent pre-concert talk, this was the first guitar concerto written in the twentieth century. It is an astounding work, not only because it reveals Rodrigo’s affinity for both orchestra and guitar, but that the writing for the guitar never seems to be overpowered by the orchestra. I use the word “astounding” because it would be so easy for other composers who are not so sensitive to the limitations of the guitar, to write a good piece perhaps, but one for the guitar would be buried in the orchestral sound. In addition, Rodrigo creates remarkable colors by pairing the guitar, for example, with other solo instruments, such as the oboe in the second movement.

All of this has resulted in a guitar concerto which has become as popular as Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Nr. 2, or the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. The result of this popularity has resulted in performances by those who have not taken the time to study its musicality in depth.

I have heard this piece, as many of you readers have, performed several times, and the performance that Nicolò Spera gave Friday night was the best I have ever heard. First of all Spera is a virtuoso guitar player, and second, he is a superb musician. In addition, the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra is exactly the right size for this kind of work, and it is comprised of very fine musicians.

Nicolò Spera is capable of producing an incredibly warm sound from his guitar, and it was inherent throughout the concerto. His musicianship seems to inspire the orchestra, and the orchestra and Spera seemed to inspire Maestra Katsarelis. It was if they realized, simultaneously, that a genuinely special performance was taking place. Every movement of this performance was intense, either in its virtuosity on the part of Nicolò Spera, or in the sensuousness and passion demonstrated by everyone on stage. In the second movement of this concerto, there is an English horn solo which was played by Max Soto. It is always a pleasure hearing his orchestral solos, but I cannot recall hearing a better English horn performance in this guitar concerto. His sensuousness matched Nicolò Spera’s. I might add, that if I had to choose a certain section of the orchestra which I thought to be outstanding (and mind you, this is always dangerous, because it annoys the rest of the orchestra!) I would have to choose the woodwind section for their performance Friday night. Every single one of them, Michelle Stanley, flute; Olga Shylayva, flute; Miriam Kapner, oboe; Max Soto, oboe and English horn; Daniel Silver, clarinet; Michelle Orman, clarinet; David Schwartz, bassoon; and Kaori Uno, bassoon, were outstanding. I will say it again: I have never heard Rodrigo’s concerto performed where everyone on stage seemed to be of one mind, and shared such a remarkable intensity and passion. In the second movement of this concerto the cellos and violas were as warm as the woodwind section. Perhaps the best way to describe the performance of this work, is to say that it was complete. There was nothing missing. I will remember it for a very long time.

Following the intermission, Maestra Katsarelis and the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra performed Beethoven’s Symphony Nr. 7 in A Major, Opus 92. This symphony was completed in 1812, but was not premiered until December 8, 1813. The year 1812 was a rather tumultuous year for Beethoven. He was almost completely deaf. With no invitation, he interfered in the romantic affairs of his youngest brother. His delight at finally meeting Goethe was turned sour when he made the discovery that Goethe was so elderly, that he was no longer a rabble-rouser. Beethoven also made the discovery that Goethe did not know so much about music at all, and that was a great disappointment to him. And finally, 1812 was the date placed on the letter to his “immortal beloved” which was not found until after Beethoven had died.

Maestra Cynthia Katsarelis has aptly named this entire concert season of the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra Epic Music. Certainly, this Symphony Nr. 7 is epic, not only because formal structure and harmonic vicissitudes, but because of its technical difficulty. Every symphony that Beethoven wrote contains some kind of milestone. If one looks at an evolutionary line drawn on a piece of paper showing the progress of Mozart and Haydn and their symphonic development, one can see that it progresses at a very steady, if not rapid, rate. Beethoven’s “line of progress” goes off at a tangent, and climbs ever higher. He stretches harmonic rules, and widens the symphonic forms that Haydn and Mozart anticipated. His harmonic progressions are radical for his time period, so much so, that he is clearly pointing to a new era. Some of the rhythms in this symphony are dancelike, and believe it or not, because of that, it inspired Isadore Duncan and Léonide Massine to choreograph portions of this work. That remarkable misstep (pardon the pun) seemed to give license to many others, who completely misinterpreted the fact that this was a symphony.

Friday evening’s performance of this work was exhilarating. It has been several years since I was able to sit so close to the orchestra while this particular symphony was being performed. From the first measure to the last measure, the orchestra is required to work very hard. They did so with great willingness and great energy. As with the two first works on this program, it seemed as though the orchestra truly caught fire. In all four movements, Maestra Katsarelis took perfect tempos, and though they were working very hard, the orchestra seemed to respond to the realization that practice makes perfect.

The performance was exciting, forceful and joyful at the same time, and performed by the orchestra with great precision. Frankly, Maestra Katsarelis’ interpretation of this symphony, reminded me very much of the conducting of János Ferencsik (1907-1984), and the Hungarian Philharmonic Orchestra. To my mind, that is still one of the best recordings available, because, like Katsarelis, Ferencsik (a protégé of Arturo Toscanini at Bayreuth) provides a sense of irrevocability in his interpretation.

I left the concert Friday evening with the certain knowledge that a city the size of Denver has an extraordinarily large population of really fine musicians that are professional in every sense of the word. One does not have to live in a city the size of Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles to hear a really fine performance. That is what I heard Friday evening from the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra.

The “New” Boulder Chamber Orchestra is terrific

It is always very exciting when an organization that is already outstanding improves even more. Such is the case with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the directorship of Maestro Bahman Saless. The first concert of this season that I was able to attend was Saturday, November 9, at the Broomfield auditorium. They performed Mozart’s Symphony Nr. 29 in A Major, K. 201; Britten’s Les Illuminations, sung by Szilvia Schranz; and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Nr. 2 in B flat Major, Op. 19.

There were many new faces in the orchestra, but particularly in the violin section. But, do not worry; Annamaria Karacson is still the Concertmaster. The result of the heavy changes, at least to my ear, was an amazing precision in dynamically shaped phrases which were shared by everyone, and very accurate attacks and releases in entrances. This new accuracy seems to be contagious, for the “old hands” in the orchestra played better than ever Saturday evening. Aniel Cabán was again superb as first chair viola, as was Joey Howe, Principal Cello, Cobus du Toit, flute, and Max Soto and Kimberly Brody, both on oboe. Just because I don’t mention everyone in all of the sections certainly does not mean that they escaped my attention for excellent playing. The entire orchestra seemed to be breathing fresh air.

Another reason I was delighted with this concert is purely personal: they opened with the Mozart Symphony Nr. 29, which happens to be one of my favorites. It is also regarded the world over as the first of Mozart’s mature style and symphonic writing, even though he was eighteen years old when he wrote this work. The word symphony (coming from the word ‘sinfonia’ in Italian), until the middle of the 18th century, could be applied to almost any style of composition for orchestra with different characters: suites, overtures, and even the interludes in oratorios. It was the Mannheim composers, those that came before Haydn, and the Bach sons, who contributed so greatly to the development of the sonata form and its use in the symphony. Mozart’s 29th symphony marks his change from the Italianate style to one of thematic development, richer motives, and a genuine balance between first and last movements.

From the outset, the change in this orchestra was apparent. The new precision was evidenced in the absolute accuracy of the dotted rhythms. In addition, the transparency of Mozart’s style can make it very obvious if someone in the orchestra is playing out of tune. This simply was not the case on Saturday. The entire orchestra was superbly in tune, and exhibited great care in the kind of sound they were producing. They played with such a new confidence, that it was very easy to sit back, relax, and share their amazement at the ability of an eighteen-year-old composer who could write such a work. It truly seemed as if they were able to put all of their musicianship into Mozart. The performance was warm, graceful, delicate where it needed to be delicate, and full of vigor. It was a delightful performance.

Following the Mozart, Szilvia Schranz sang Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this work, it is a musical setting of Arthur Rimbaud’s cycle of poems. Keep in mind that Rimbaud was one of the Symbolist poets of the nineteenth century. Christine Brooke-Rose in her Grammar of Metaphor explains that in symbolist poetry “… The proper term is replaced altogether by a metaphor, without being mentioned at all.” Of course, the proper term or thing must be hinted at, or at least deciphered, from the context. I hasten to point out that some symbolist poetry simply cannot be ‘deciphered.’ Many of the symbolist poets visualized their poetry as expressing through its sensible instrumentality, something that is insensible. In addition, one of the elements that must be mentioned here is that in symbolist poetry, the lyrical self does not speak in the first person, but yields its place to a suggestive and impersonal lyrical object. For example a symbolist poet who is trying to express a search for meaning in life, might describe himself as a wandering ship.

The point of all this discussion is that symbolist poetry has a certain “musicality of language” which was recognized by Benjamin Britten, who clearly understood a great deal about poetry, especially from his friendship with W. H. Auden. Britten’s settings of Rimbaud’s poems are lyricism personified, and it is very clear that Szilvia Schranz recognized this. Her performance of this work was very emotional, and as one followed the translation in the program notes, one became aware of the “inherent search” in Rimbaud’s poetry: “Bordered by colossi and copper palms, ancient craters bellow melodiously through flames.… Groups of belfries sing the people’s ideas. Unfamiliar music escapes from castles of bone.”

There is no question that for a singer, this is a difficult piece. It not only demands perfect voice control which Ms. Schranz has in abundance, but that control must not get in the way of interpretive drama. In addition, one has to have a very keen sense of pitch, and enough control to land squarely on pitch every single time. Her performance was incredibly beautiful, and very sensitive, conveying the extraordinary sense of futility that is inherent in Rimbaud’s text. A few years ago, I was fortunate to hear Ms. Schranz perform Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which is one of my favorite compositions of the twentieth century. That was a stunning performance as well, just as this one was. I would also point out, that in this work Aniel Cabán’s performance on the viola was superb.

The Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed beautifully in this work. There was immediate and solid communication between Maestro Saless and Szilvia Schranz, without any confusion or haste, proving beyond a doubt, that Ms. Schranz is a solid and very reliable musician. She and Maestro Saless were very comfortable with one another, which allowed them to concentrate on making music.

I will quote from the bio statement on her website:

“Ms. Schranz was born in Budapest, Hungary into a family of musicians that had worked for generations in the Hungarian National Opera and Hungarian Festival Orchestra. At the age of 10, her family escaped their country’s oppressive communist government to relocate in Boulder, Colorado where her father’s string quartet, the Grammy-winning Takács Quartet, [was] appointed as musicians-in-residence at the University of Colorado School of Music.

“After graduating from the University of Colorado, Ms. Schranz performed at the Denver Center for Performing Arts with their Tony-award winning theater company in the Tempest. She then went to further her studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London where she studied with Vera Rózsa, who also taught such renown singers as Kiri Te Kanawa and Anne Sofie Von Otter. After a year’s study in London, she received a post-graduate diploma in vocal training.

“While in London she appeared several times with the London Chamber Soloists, including solo performances of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, as well as in Mozart’s Requiem and Haydn’s Creation at St. Martin in the Fields. She also sang at a charity concert for the Kensington Housing Trust at the Leighton House in London.

“Today, Ms. Schranz studies with Julliard’s Daniel Ferro, while expanding her career as a solo and opera singer from her home in Manhattan.”

Following the intermission, pianist Soheil Nasseri, joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra in performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Nr. 2 in B flat Major. I think most concertgoers are familiar with the reverse publication dates concerning Beethoven’s first piano concerto and his second, so I will not dwell on those details.

Quoting from Nasseri’s website:

“Pianist Soheil Nasseri has been lauded by The New York Times as “consistently interesting… consistently thoughtful… a vivid imagination. Filled with character…” and by the Berliner Zeitung as “Fantastic! A real talent. [In Beethoven] We in the audience could not possibly have had more fun.” In addition to critical acclaim for his playing, The New Yorker has noted that Mr. Nasseri is “one of New York’s most prolific recitalists.” Since 2001 he has performed 20 completely different solo recital programs in New York, all without repeating a single piece: at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, and at Merkin Concert Hall. These concerts included 25 premières of contemporary works in addition to 30 of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, a part of Mr. Nasseri’s pledge to perform all of Beethoven’s works involving piano by the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020.

“Born in Santa Monica, California, Soheil Nasseri began studying the piano at the age of five and at the age of twenty moved to New York in part to study with Karl Ulrich Schnabel. In 2001 Mr. Nasseri became a protégé of Jerome Lowenthal who remains Mr. Nasseri’s mentor today. Other teachers include Irina Edelman, Claude Frank, Anna Balakerskaia, Clinton Adams, Eva Pierrou, and Ann Schein.”

Soheil Nasseri deserves all of the accolades above. As a pianist, he is extremely relaxed, and has an astonishing ability to play extremely softly, and not allow himself to be covered by the orchestra. His knowledge of Beethoven is profound, with all of the clarity and dynamic contrasts that Beethoven demands. His playing can be very articulate, and then wonderfully lyrical, and his concentration on what he is doing is total, and very confident. He demonstrated remarkable finesse in his phrasing, and every aspect of musicianship that can be verbalized. The only thing that I would change in his performance ability is his penchant for stomping his right foot on the damper pedal and the stage. That created a substantial amount of noise, and gave rise to my expectation that he might explode into the theatrical movements that some pianists of today seem to think is necessary when performing. He did not do that, but, nonetheless, he made a great deal of noise with his right foot. It was a real distraction to his fine playing.

There was another aspect of Mr. Nasseri’s performance that bears mention, and which was not at all expected. At the beginning of the concert, Maestro Saless explained to the audience a few things to listen for in the Mozart Symphony. When Szilvia Schranz came out on stage to perform the Britten, Maestro Saless handed her the microphone, and she gave us some insight into her performance. When Mr. Nasseri came out on stage, Maestro Saless handed him the microphone. However, instead of offering insights into the Beethoven Concerto, Nasseri delved into a standup comedy routine, a la Lenny Bruce, complete with foul language, that had no bearing whatsoever on his performance of the piano concerto. It certainly appeared to me that Maestro Saless was clearly surprised and taken aback, as was the audience. After about five minutes of this, Nasseri asked the audience if they wanted to hear the concerto, and everyone nodded their heads, and said yes. He then proceeded to play, and, as I said, he played very well. I do not know what caused his desire to do a “standup comedy routine,” but it reminded me of the nineteenth century pianist named Daniel Steibelt, who would play the piano while his wife performed on the tambourine. I thought that Nasseri’s actions were entirely uncalled for, and I stress that it is my opinion that Maestro Bahman Saless, everyone on stage, and in the audience, was dumbfounded. I would suggest to Soheil Nasseri that no matter where he plays, if he wishes to be asked back, that he concentrate on his art, rather than contribute to its denigration.

World Class Hsing-ay Hsu and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra are stunning!

I have attended three or four concerts this concert season where the musicians involved in the performance truly seemed totally energized and excited by the music they were going to perform. Such was the case Saturday evening, May 11th, with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Bahman Saless. They performed an all-Beethoven program at the Broomfield Auditorium in front of a full house.

The Boulder Chamber Orchestra opened the program with the overture to Beethoven’s only ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus. A result of an association with the choreographer Salvatore Viganò in 1800, it was first performed on March 28, 1801. At the time, it was quite popular, and received twelve performances, but even so, it was eventually criticized as being far too serious for a ballet. This work carries the number Opus 43, which is quite challenging, because it indicates that the work was written quite a bit later than it actually was. We know, for example, that there was a piano arrangement of the score published as Opus 24. It was the publisher, Hoffmeister, who published the score of the overture under the incorrect number Opus 43, which, of course, leads one to believe an incorrect composition date. Beethoven also used the theme from the ballet in his Twelve Contradanses (without opus number), the Variations and Fugue for Piano, Opus 35, and the connection for Saturday evening’s performance, as a major theme in the last movement of his Symphony Nr. 3.

This Beethoven overture is a relatively short work, but it is quite an exciting one, and was well-chosen to begin this program. The work opens with forte chords separated by a considerable space between them. The attacks on each of the chords were perfect, followed by lyrical sections of the full orchestra with the weight of the melodic line carried by the woodwinds. This short introduction is then followed by the theme of the opening chords with an underlayment of sixteenth notes in the strings. This is a very exciting piece of music, and it only works if there is true precision from the violins. That precision was in abundance throughout the whole concert Saturday evening. That sounds like a very obvious thing to say, especially considering the fact that these are all professional musicians, but I assure you there was a very special “edge” to the performance on Saturday. It was full of tension and excitement. The other aspect that I noticed about the performance was that all of the musicians on stage were not only watching Maestro Saless, they were very carefully watching each other. The sforzandos (a marked and sudden emphasis) were as perfectly together as the entrances, and that comes from eye contact with each other, as well as the conductor. Beethoven’s ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, has fallen by the wayside as far as its popularity is concerned. That, in my opinion, has led many conductors to treat the overture to the ballet as a “filler” piece of music, to be used only when a short work is needed for the program. It was great to hear Maestro Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra treat it like the genuine piece of music, which it is.

Following the Beethoven overture, Boulder (and world) pianist Hsing-ay Hsu joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra in the performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Nr. 5 in E Flat Major, Opus 73, known as the “Emperor.”

Surely, everyone in Colorado must, by now, know who Hsing-ay Hsu is; however, I will quote from her bio statement which is on the web:

“Since making her stage debut at age 4, Chinese pianist Hsing-ay Hsu (“Sing-I Shoo”) has performed at such notable venues as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, and abroad in Asia and Europe.

“Upon entering her freshman year at Juilliard, she won the William Kapell International Piano Competition silver medal. Hsu was also winner of the Ima Hogg National Competition First Prize, the prestigious Juilliard William Petschek Recital Award, a McCrane Foundation Artist Grant, a Paul & Daisy Soros Graduate Fellowship Award, and a Gilmore Young Artist Award. She was also named a US Presidential Scholar of the Arts by President Clinton at the White House.

“A versatile concerto soloist performing Bach to Barber, she is described by the Washington Post as full of ‘power, authority, and self-assurance.’ Concerto collaborations include the Houston Symphony Orchestra as first-prize winner of the 2003 Ima Hogg National Competition, the Baltimore Symphony, the Colorado Symphony, Pacific Symphony (CA), Colorado Springs, Florida West Coast, Fort Collins, New Jersey, Waterbury (CT), China National, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Xiamen orchestras. Television and radio feature broadcasts include Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion Live from Tanglewood (for a 10,000+ live audience members and 3.9 million broadcast audience), NPR’s Performance Today with Martin Goldsmith, TCI cablevision’s Grand Piano Recital (CA), CPR’s Colorado Spotlight, China Central National TV, Hong Kong Phoenix TV, and Danish National Radio. She has recorded CD/DVD’s for Pacific Records, Albany Records, and Nutmeg Press labels.

“An advocate of new music, she has given numerous world premieres including Ezra Laderman’s Piano Sonata No. and Beshert; Ned Rorem’s Aftermath (2002) for baritone and piano trio; Daniel Kellogg’s scarlet thread at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and his Momentum, which she commissioned for the 1998 Gilmore International Keyboard Festival; as well as Du MingXin’s Piano Concerto No.3 at the Gulangyu International Piano Festival and National Tour. Chamber music appearances include Carnegie Weill Hall, Bargemusic in New York, the Aspen Music Festival, Tanglewood, the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, the Gardner Museum in Boston, the Detroit Art Museum, Denmark’s Viborg Hall, Taiwan’s Novel Hall, and a 2007 all-stars gala in Hong Kong for the 10th anniversary of the reunification. Recent projects include the ongoing multi-media recital China through the Lens of Piano Music, co-directing/performing in the George Crumb at 80 Music Festival, and producing/performing the Olivier Messiaen Centennial series.”

I suppose that it is not without reason that Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto is nicknamed the “Emperor,” though I hasten to point out that nickname did not come from Beethoven. The name arises from the fact that it is a very forceful piece, akin to the “Eroica” Symphony Nr.3, also in E Flat Major (and also performed at Saturday’s concert). Beethoven, perhaps, more than any other composer, has had so much written about him which is full of nonsense by the early romantically-inclined critics, that today, one must realize that listening to a single page of his music is far more instructive than reading a hundred pages of the early literary effusion. The Fifth Piano Concerto is full of sharp forte-piano shadings, and incredible bravura eruptions, but the second movement also contains some of the most idyllic writing to come from Beethoven.

As stated above in her biography, Hsing-ay Hsu takes charge of the piano the moment she sits down. Her playing is full of confidence, and why shouldn’t it be? Consider all of her awards and concert experience. However, she also exudes true musicianship, and understanding of the composer that she is playing. I also hasten to interrupt myself here, to explain that Maestro Saless, in speaking to the audience, clarified that all of works on Saturday’s concert were going to be taken at tempos that were consistent with those of Beethoven’s era. They were faster than the tempos of today. As Hsing-ay Hsu began to play, it was clear that she was comfortable, and in full agreement with the tempos that were no doubt discussed with Maestro Bahman Saless. Her arpeggios ascending the keyboard from the opening chords of the introduction were crystal clear because of her very careful pedal use. She certainly used less pedal on the ascending arpeggios and the accompanying trills at the top than, for example, Claudio Arrau. Yet, it was wonderfully musical. I was also immediately struck with the impression that she was enjoying the Sauter piano because of its clarity of tone, though there were spots in certain registers of the keyboard that seemed a little out of tune, unlike other performances that I have heard on this particular piano. Her playing is so clean that it boggles the mind, and she has such power that it seems there is no chance that the orchestra could cover her. Her playing in the second movement was positively ethereal and dream-like. And, indeed, it is one of Beethoven’s most expressive statements in his entire output. I have often stated that it is sometimes more difficult to play slowly, concentrating on tone production and dynamic shadings, then it is to play fast and loud. Hsing-ay Hsu allowed the second movement to radiate emotion without being overly sentimental, and never once did she leave Beethoven’s style behind. The second movement has a slow transition which gets faster as it progresses, and the third movement of the concerto begins attacca (begin what follows without pausing). The tempo of the third movement was very quick indeed, but Hsing-ay Hsu filled it with the jubilance that I have not heard for some time. Once again, the members of the orchestra were watching each other carefully. The violins and cellos, which could easily see the piano keyboard, were also keeping a sharp eye on Ms. Hsu. It was a perfect example of an orchestra determined to allow the soloist and the conductor to lead them in this piece and offer both individuals all the support they could muster. It was clear that the members of this orchestra truly enjoyed playing with Hsing-ay Hsu because she is such an incredibly reliable musician.

Allow me to explain precisely what I mean by reliable. It means that the soloist not only knows where every note and rest and dynamic marking is, but is able to communicate that with eye contact and gestures with the conductor. In the third movement of this concerto, Ms. Hsu had a miniscule memory slip, and came in a beat late. This is not an extreme criticism by any stretch: it is part of the price of admission of being a soloist. I am confident that no one in the audience spotted this slip because I doubt that anyone in the audience knows the score well enough to spot such a small error, but it did result in an amused smile from Hsing-ay Hsu. Her reliability as a performing musician allowed her great confidence to keep going as if nothing had happened without losing a secondary beat, and it also gave Maestro Saless the confidence to know that she was going to continue without a stumble. She knew the piece so well that her tempo never changed, her eyes never got wide with shock, and she never lost her breath. That is mental and musical reliability, and total knowledge of the work at hand. It is the mark of experience, which is something that is difficult for the audience to understand unless they do it themselves in their own field of endeavor. Hsing-ay Hsu gave a wonderfully exciting performance of this very difficult piece, and her artistry and musical excellence were in a sphere obtained by only a few.

Following Hsing-ay Hsu’s remarkable performance, Maestro Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed Beethoven’s revolutionary Symphony Nr. 3 in E flat Major, Opus 55. Note that I used the word “revolutionary.” In truth, all of Beethoven’s symphonies are revolutionary, because he did so many things other composers would not do, as in his first symphony (which is in C major). He starts on the wrong chord, travels through a minor, then F major, and at the beginning of the exposition section, finally settles in C major. Just that aspect startled critics of the day. Of course, being a revolutionary meant that his thinking was in advance of his contemporaries, and that he was misunderstood because his contemporaries refused to look forward. It was due only to later generations to award Beethoven their honor with their enlightenment.

This Third Symphony is so well-known that it really needs no movement by movement explanation. But I must point out that in the first movement the entire cello section was absolutely marvelous. In the second movement the oboes, Max Soto and Kimberly Brody excelled, as did Cobus du Toit and Ginger Hedrick, flute. In fact, the entire woodwind section including Jerome Fleg and Kellen Toohey, clarinet; and Kent Hurd and Kaori Uno, bassoon, were all exceptional. I have never heard the horn section of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra play as well as they did in this Third Symphony. As I said in the opening paragraph of this article, this was a wonderful concert by everyone on stage. It clearly was the best performance I have ever heard the Boulder Chamber Orchestra give. Everyone on stage, guided by Maestro Bahman Saless, had a knowledge of Beethoven that allowed them to present Beethoven in his purist sense. What more could one ask for?

Aldo Ragone thrills the audience with innovative programming

Wednesday, November 28, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra invited Italian pianist, Aldo Ragone, to perform at the First Congregational Church of Boulder. He will also perform at the Opus Two Concert Hall in Lafayette at 9167 Davidson Way. That performance starts at 7 PM on November 30th , and is a fundraising event, complete with a meal and wine in addition to the incredible artistry of Aldo Ragone. Seating is strictly limited, and it would be strongly advised for you to contact the Boulder Chamber Orchestra at 303-583-1278 to see if seats are still available.

Dr. Ragone is an old friend of Denver’s, as he has performed here often: he received his artist diploma from the Lamont School of Music, and he taught at Regis University for two years, before returning to his native Italy. He has a remarkable reputation all over Europe, and he has performed throughout the United States. I will quote from his bio statement:

“Aldo Ragone has delighted audiences in such Italian cities as Rome, Venice, Genoa, Turin, Naples, Bari, Lecce, Siena, and many others, performing for music associations, such as Fondazione Giorgio Cini of Venice, Museum of Musical Instruments and La Scaletta Theatre of Rome, Il Coretto of Bari, Aragonese Castle of Otranto, the Conservatory of Music Tito Schipa of Lecce, Thalberg Hall and Aldo Ciccolini Hall of Naples, Carlo Felice Theatre of Genoa, Vespasiano Theatre in Rieti, in Music at Piazza Colonna in Rome, and Rassegna di Musica Contemporanea (Contemporary Music Review) in the Theatre of Latina. In a highlight of his performing career in Italy, Mr. Ragone performed the Second Piano Concerto of Sergei Rachmaninov at the Alfonso Rendano Theatre of Cosenza, which was broadcast on the Italian national television channel, Cinque Stelle.

“In 2003, Aldo Ragone made his debut at the prestigious Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in the U.S.A. Subsequently, he has been a recitalist at the Gildenhorn Recital Hall of the Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Maryland, College Park; in Washington, D.C., at the historic Dacor-Bacon House, the Brazilian-American Cultural Institute and the Washington Arts Club; in Washington’s metropolitan area, at the Italian Cultural Society and the Strathmore Hall Mansion; in Virginia, at the Lyceum, the Fairfax Town Hall Series and the Rappahannock Music Series; in Baltimore at the Old St. Paul Church Music; in Maryland in the Sanford Concert Series. In Colorado, he has performed to acclaim in Hamilton Hall and in Gates Hall in the Newman Center for the Arts at The University of Denver and at Regis University in Denver. Still in Colorado, he played Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto Nr. 5 with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra in the King Center Concert Hall of Denver, and the rarely performed Scriabin Piano Concerto with the Niwot Timberline Symphony.

“His international appearances include the Sommerclassics Musik Festival at Saffig, Germany, the performance of Bach Concerto BWV 1052 in d minor with the Petrassi Youth Chamber Orchestra at Zagarolo, Italy, the Bloomsbury International Recital Series in London, UK, in Italy, the Festival Internazionale di Mezza Estate at Tagliacozzo, the International Music Festival Beethoven at Sutri, the prestigious Festival Pontino, the Tuscia Opera Festival, and the review Roma Musica Estate. Recently, he completed a tour in the U.S.A. with recitals, masterclasses, and the performance of Rachmaninov Second Piano Concert with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra. During this tour, Colorado Public Radio aired a program with some of his performances and an interview. Furthermore, KPOF Radio of Denver aired his performance of Rachmaninov Second Concerto with the Denver Philharmonic.

“In 2009 and 2010, the government of the United States of America awarded him a visa for extraordinary ability in the field of music. From 2007 to 2009 Aldo Ragone taught piano at Regis University in Denver, Colorado.”

Dr. Ragone is known for his eclectic programming, and the concert Wednesday evening was certainly no exception, for he introduced us to a fine but lesser-known composer, Ludwig Thuille, an Austrian composer, whose dates are 1861 to 1907. It is easy to see, from those dates, that he is (or should be) a crossover composer between the Impressionist period and the Expressionist period. However, he seems to lean more to the style of Brahms than he does to the hypertrophied romanticism of Mahler, or even Richard Strauss who was a close friend. When he was 15, he enrolled in the Innsbruck School of Music where he studied with Joseph Pembauer. After he completed his courses at Innsbruck, he returned to Munich and studied organ and composition with Joseph Rheinberger. He eventually gained a professorship at the Munich School. He was a well-respected composer, and truthfully, quite prolific, composing operas, chamber music, and symphonies.

Aldo Ragone chose to perform Ludwig Thuille’s (pronounced Twee-lay) Sextet for Piano and Winds, Opus 6. Joining him in the performance were Ginger Hedrick, flute; Max Soto, oboe; Devon Park, French horn; Jerome Fleg, clarinet; and Kaori Uno, bassoon.

I have never heard this work, and I am always amazed at composers who are unfamiliar to the majority of concert audiences, who have produced such startlingly fine and well-crafted music. Certainly, this piece, especially the first movement, could have been Brahms; the second movement showed influence of Cesar Franck and Gabriel Fauré; the third movement could have come from a Parisian operetta; and in the fourth movement, it became obvious that Thuille has his own voice.

The minute Ragone began to play, it was apparent that he needed a better piano. He was performing on the church piano (church pianos are notorious because they’re often not well maintained), which was a six-foot grand. He should have had a seven-foot grand, because the key length from the end of the key that one can see, to the end that goes inside the piano is the same length as on a 9 foot concert grand. Therefore, it is easier to control, and, concert artists usually perform on a seven or a nine foot instrument. In addition, one could see by looking at the keyboard, that the keys were not level with one another, and that indicates that the piano should have been regulated. However, most urgently, the piano needed to be voiced and properly tuned as it went out of tune as the concert progressed. These deficiencies made it difficult for Dr. Ragone to control the sound that he wanted. All the difficulties aside, it was refreshing to hear this fine pianist play after being denied the privilege for almost two years here in the USA. Ragone has the technical ability to control every single note no matter the difficulty or speed of the finger work: it is always clear and delineated with dynamic contrast. The second movement was positively serene, and Devon Park, French horn, and Jerome Flagg, clarinet, performed their solos beautifully. All of the musicians in this sextet are extremely accomplished performing artists, and I was pleasantly surprised at their ensemble and camaraderie, particularly given the fact they had limited rehearsal time together because Dr. Ragone had just arrived from Rome. Musicianship and experience show.

The third movement of this work had a very light-hearted character: almost an opera buffa, except that it had a distinct French sound. Truly, that is what made this entire work so exceptional, it sounded French, but Ludwig Thuille is Austrian, and certainly seems more influenced by French Impressionism than German Romanticism. That should be a lesson for music history students: listen carefully for style and “voice.”

Following the intermission, Aldo Ragone performed the Liszt transcription of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It was common practice in the early 1800s for composers to transcribe another composer’s symphony for keyboard. Often, it was done because the composer admired a given work, but, in addition, composers also discovered that it was a good way to learn, and to see precisely what the other composer had done, and to become closer to the work. The motivation for Liszt to transcribe the symphonies came from his publisher, Breitkopf and Härtel, and he eventually transcribed all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies for piano. It is unfortunate that they are not performed more often. One does have to recognize, in the case of Franz Liszt, that he was simply the greatest pianist in the history of keyboard music, and he maintains that position today. The reason for that is that he not only had unmatched technical ability, he was also possessed of a very progressive musical imagination, and unfailing musicianship. It is, in some ways, unfortunate that his remarkable instinct for showmanship has occasionally overshadowed his legendary ability to compose. His transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies, as were all of his compositions, written for himself, and that is one of the important reasons they are not performed often, because they are so incredibly difficult. In addition, there are pianists today who do have the technical ability to play these pieces, but some of them use the transcriptions for impressing an audience without realizing that they must impress with musicianship as well. Dr. Aldo Ragone understands that both are necessary, and he has the ability to carry through.

His performance of the Liszt of Beethoven’s Symphony Nr. 5 was outstanding. If one knows this particular Beethoven Symphony truly well, it is a stunning experience to listen to Liszt’s piano transcription simply because he did not leave anything of Beethoven’s out of the transcription. He didn’t need to, because he could play it all. And, I hasten to point out that he would not have dared to leave anything out because he admired Beethoven so much, and he did not set out to write a transcription for lesser pianists: remember: as I said above, he wrote these for himself.

Dr. Ragone brought out all of the counterpoint and all of the secondary themes with wonderful clarity. He was also extremely sensitive to the way Liszt voiced different themes, depending on which instrument Beethoven used in his original score. He followed the dynamics scrupulously, as did Liszt, and as a result, one was reminded instantly of the same original instrument. Several years ago, I reviewed a concert given by Aldo Ragone and I characterized his keyboard technique as “ferocious.” That word still fits, and I would add that his musicianship is simply sublime.

I am absolutely delighted that I will have a second chance to hear this concert on Friday evening at the Opus Two Concert Hall. How wonderful it would be if Aldo Ragone would give a concert (it would have to be more than one!) to perform all nine of Liszt transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies. Hearing them played on the piano does offer a new perspective, especially when it is done so well. I am confident that both Liszt and Beethoven would be pleased.

The Boulder Chamber Orchestra gives us a season of Festivity and Excellence

Maestro Bahman Saless of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra added a very nice touch to the season’s concert series by giving each concert a specific title and performing specific composers. On the Boulder Chamber Orchestra’s website, Saless states that: “An artist’s quest to achieve mastery of his or her art is an incredible journey filled with excitement, frustration, hope, despair, and unending challenge. This season’s selection of pieces could readily be packaged in such a way as to portray the stages that artists—indeed all who aspire to master their domain—pass through in their lifetime. Thus, we have titled our season “Road to Mastery”!

So it was that Saturday night, December 17, was the third concert of their season. This particular concert was entitled “Festivity,” and the BCO presented four works from the Baroque period by the composers Rameau, Albinoni, Torelli, and Bach.

The first work on the program was the Orchestral Suite in G minor by Rameau. This French composer was one of the multifaceted musicians of his day. Like Bach in Germany, Rameau was the greatest organist in France. He was a prodigious composer of operas and ballets as well as works for harpsichord, which were primarily written early in his life. He was the most important musical theorist since Gioseffo Zarlino (whose four volume treatise, Istitutioni harmoniche, of 1558, codifies major and minor tonality), and even today, doctoral students are kept quite busy pouring over his theoretical writings.

The Orchestral Suite in G minor is truly an arrangement by the German violinist, conductor, and founder of the Mainz Chamber Orchestra, Gunter Kehr. While this may seem like heresy to any of you readers who are purists, please understand that this was a fairly common practice in the Baroque period, and it was J.S. Bach, among others to practice this on a fairly regular basis, particularly with his own works. As I have said before, the term is self-plagiarism. Granted, the late Gunter Kehr (1920-1989) was not a Baroque composer, but nonetheless there is ample justification for his arrangement of this keyboard work.

As the members of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra entered the stage, I noticed that there were several regular members who weren’t there Saturday evening. Though I do not know for sure, I suspect that many of them were involved with the Colorado Ballet Orchestra, as I think both orchestras share members. At any rate, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed the Rameau beautifully. In the first movement there were some trills in the strings, which were exceedingly well done (trills on any stringed instrument always seem difficult to me). The fourth movement of this work had a great deal of ornamentation, but the strings were very nicely together throughout and the terrace dynamics were extremely precise.

The second work on the program was the Oboe Concerto in D minor, Opus 9, Nr. 2. There is substantial mystery surrounding this piece; however,  it’s quite possible that the mystery is close to being solved. The mystery concerns Tomaso Albinoni’s authorship of this work. As per the Saturday night’s program notes, Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto, an Albinoni scholar, said that he reconstructed this concerto from a small fragment of the slow movement that he supposedly found in the Saxon State Library after the bombing raids of World War II in Dresden. There is evidence that the adagio may be Giazotto’s composition, even though the fragment that he says he discovered has never been found. According to the research done by Brian Robins, who is a musicologist, we know that, in 1722, a set of concertos labeled Opus 9 were published in Amsterdam by Le Cène. They were published in three separate groups of four each. Number two has a solo part for oboe, and that work contains an Adagio, which bears the unmistakable style of Albinoni. In addition, descriptions by Albinoni contemporaries give evidence to the published Opus 9 concertos of the same powerful lyric and incredibly lush sounds that are typical of Albinoni.

I suppose we will have to wait for a definitive answer after more doctoral students have examined this problem. But, there is absolutely no doubt about the beauty of this remarkable composition and its beautiful performance Saturday night by Max Soto.

Quoting from Max Soto’s biographical statement that I found on the web:

“Max began his musical education with the Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil de Costa Rica which allowed him to study with Principal Oboist Jorge Rodriguez and helped to cultivate a passion for Classical Music and the Oboe. Max arrived in the USA in 1996 at the Loyola University of New Orleans and received his Bachelor of Arts in Music Performance. Max began his professional career performing a season with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra as Assistant Principal Oboist. Max moved to Denver in 2002 in order to pursue his Masters Degree in Music Performance. He attended the Lamont School of Music at Denver University and graduated in 2004. Max went on a whirlwind tour of the United States and Canada performing The Pirates of Penzance with the London based Carl Rosa Opera Company in 2007. He has performed with the Colorado Ballet, Fort Collins Symphony, Steamboat Springs Orchestra, Emerald City Opera, and Cheyenne Symphony Orchestra and appears at various music festivals with small ensembles all over the state of Colorado. In addition to playing with the Boulder Philharmonic, Max also appears as Assistant Principal Oboist of the Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra and Principal Oboist for the Musica Sacra Chamber Orchestra.”

I add to the above file statement that Max Soto is the principal oboe for the Boulder Chamber Orchestra.

Right away, the oboist is put on his mettle, because this work requires incredible breath control and support. The opening movement of this three movement work is a fairly standard allegro, but if one compares it to Vivaldi, it doesn’t have quite the same forward motion. It is still a wonderful piece, and is very transparent because of its orchestration solely for strings, continuo, and, of course, the oboe. It is the second movement that is one of the most beautiful compositions ever written for oboe. And it is this movement where I was absolutely astonished at Max Soto’s breathing ability.  Make no mistake: Albinoni wrote some incredibly long melodic lines for a Baroque composer. The melodic lines in this Adagio movement are long enough that I sat on the edge of my seat wondering if Soto was going to get to the end of the phrase, but he always did, and his tone never wavered or faltered. This certainly has to be one of the most difficult works for any oboe player but it was so beautifully done, and so skillfully done, that Soto, if one wasn’t looking, seemed to just “play it,” without working hard all. And, of course, Maestro Saless was clearly enjoying himself, and his conducting skills come to him just as naturally as Soto’s breathing.

After the intermission, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed a work by Giuseppe Torelli (1658 – 1709). This work, the Concerto Grosso, Op.8, Nr. 6, otherwise known as the Christmas Concerto, is the sixth concerto of a set of twelve which were published in 1709. It is a short piece, but nonetheless delightful, and is called a “Christmas Concerto” because one of the sections is a pastorale. This is a one movement piece in four sections, Grave – Vivace (Pastorale) – Largo – Vivace. The orchestra sounded absolutely superb, and I am always enormously pleased to hear this chamber orchestra perform because they play with so much love for what they do.

Following the fairly short Torelli work, was the famous Bach Orchestral Suite Nr. 2 in B minor, featuring Cobus du Toit, Principal Flute in the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. This orchestral suite is scored for flute strings and continuo, and it is possible that it was written for Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin, who was the Principal Flute in the Dresden Court Orchestra. There is no question that he knew Bach, who was 30 years older. As Maestro Saless pointed out, many people consider this orchestral suite a concerto because the flute is featured so prominently. However, if it were a concerto, the flute would not simply double the violins, as it does, and would have its own separate themes in an exchange with the orchestra. There are moments, particularly in the last movement of the famous Badinerie, where the flute is featured, but that is because Bach chose to allow the flautist to show off a little.

The contrast between the Bach piece in the Torelli was remarkable. The first movement is an overture, as is the first movement of all three orchestral suites, but following the Torelli the Bach seemed quite formal, though it certainly is graceful as well. The second movement, a Rondeau, is in reality, a fugue. The following sarabande certainly has a measured step so that the bourée seems almost rowdy. Keep in mind that all these names are names of dances from the Baroque period that worked their way into the suites of music, not only for orchestral suites, but also keyboard suites as well. And they were used by most Baroque composers as well as Bach.

But, of course, the movement that I was waiting for was the Badinerie (of which, in French, means flirtation). Cobus du Toit is an absolutely astounding flautist. I have heard him several times, and he never ceases to amaze me. I wrote about him two years ago, December 20, 2009. I encourage you to read that review. All you have to do is to go to the left-hand column of this page and click on December 2009, and that will take you to the review of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra.

In this performance, I was again amazed at the ease with which Cobus du Toit plays. It is always musical, his tone is always superb, and his breath control is amazing. In addition, he played some ornaments in this movement that I have not heard any other flautist play. Being familiar with du Toit’s abilities, I am sure that they were authentic, but I must say they sounded incredibly difficult. He is such a fine flute player and the grace with which he exhibited playing the accented appoggiaturas was something to behold. They are not terribly difficult, but they were perfect, and the kind of perfection he exhibits when he plays Bach or anything else, is never pedantic, but it is always beautiful.

The Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed an encore at the end of the program. It had to be one of the most gorgeous performances of Silent Night, Holy Night, that I have ever heard. Cobus du Toit and Max Soto join together, and each proceeded down the aisles from the rear of the church, Soto playing oboe, and du Toit playing the flute. Du Toit performed an improvisation above the familiar melodic line, while Soto doubled the strings of the orchestra. It brought the audience to their feet, and I saw several in the audience wiping their eyes.

I have always been impressed by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Bahman Saless. They never disappoint, and they always surprise. It is quite something to see the joy that the orchestra members take in each other’s playing. The applause by the orchestra given to Soto and du Toit was clearly heartfelt.

The applause from the audience was exultant as well.


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